Saturday, July 19, 2008

The World`s Greatest Gambling Scam Did Not Happen In A Casino--It Happened Aboard The Titanic!

Poker Cheating and Casino Cheating have been the main focus of my blog since its inception, but if you will allow me to wander off the beaten track for just this one post and let me tell you about the World's Greatest Gambling Scam of all-time, which, believe it or not, happened on a chessboard aboard the Titanic the night before it hit the iceberg. The ingenious British con artist behind it, Piers Morgan, never got to enjoy the fruits of his master scam, as he drowned in the icy North Atlantic, but the tale of his chess scam made it to safety on one of the Titanic's lifeboats.


One of the greatest gambling scams of all-time did not take place at a poker table but it was certainly hatched on one. Believe it or not, it happened onboard the Titanic, the night before the great ship hit the iceberg. The guy who pulled it off went down with the vessel, but before dying he recounted the scam to a young stowaway while they lay clinging to a life raft in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The first thing the bowled over lad did upon his rescue was to tell anyone else who’d listen.
Among Europe’s elite and wealthy on the passenger manifest for that fateful voyage was a good old Anglo-Saxon con artist. His name was Piers Mason and he was as dashing and charming as they came. He travelled with a well-heeled and very attractive woman named Isabel, who for some reason resented the upper crust of society and liked teaming up with Mason to rip off its elegant members.
Mason was quite aware of the roster of fortune holders making that historical crossing and wasn’t about to miss it for the world. He had called in all his markers and then begged, borrowed and stole every penny of front money he could without knowing exactly how he’d use it on the ship. The one part of his plan he was sure of was that removing those rich pigeons from their money had to be done through some form of gambling.
Like the riverboats steaming down the Mississippi, the principal form of gambling on the gigantic ocean liner was poker. The nightly high-stakes game onboard was filled with Barons, Earls and varied aristocrats who fawned on each other in several languages, most of which Mason spoke fluently. His first idea was to slip a marked deck of cards into play and thieve his noble opponents by reading their hole cards. But the main problem with that was that some of these people were sharp (after all, most people who’d made fortunes were not idiots) and might notice the markings. In those days, specially made eyeglasses or contact lenses for card scams did not exist.
Isabel and Mason had been in their stateroom dressing into formal evening attire when Piers suddenly called off his plan to mark the cards.
“But how else are you going to get their money, honey?” Isabel asked with comic but great concern.
“I don’t know but I’ll figure something out while I’m playing.”
“That’s right.” Mason’s confidence, like that of all con men, was unshakeable.
“But darling,” Isabel said with a seductive rub embracing his shoulders. “How can you play honestly with them? Our bankroll is only fifty thousand pounds.”
“I will play conservatively,” Mason assured her. “It’s only my presence in the game that is important. While sitting there amongst all that blue blood I will figure something out. Trust me.”
She did and he did…figure something out.
Stuck nearly ten thousand pounds that first night at the gilded poker table, Mason picked up an interesting tidbit in the lofty chatter flowing across the table. Aboard the ship were two chess grandmasters on their way to a prestigious chess tournament in New York. One was Russian, the other German. Both had been invited to take part in the poker game but both professed to be too busy studying their chess strategies and declined.
At a well-chosen moment in the game, Mason, who had by that time ingratiated himself into their crisscrossing conversations, made a statement that none of the regal gentlemen could believe.
“My fiancee can play and hold her own with either grandmaster,” he declared like a bellicose general who knew his troops would recapture the hill.
None of the poker players at first believed his ears, but finally one of them asked Piers to clarify what he meant. When Mason repeated it, another of the players said in amazement, “You think your…fiancee can play chess with Borzov and Heilmann?” Borzov was the Russian, Heilmann the German.
“I’m sure of it,” Mason said in a steely voice, all the while knowing that Isabel had never touched a chess piece in her life.
After a hearty round of chuckling, one of the nobility said to Mason, “Would you care to wager on that? I’m sure I can convince Messieurs Borzov and Heilmann to accept an invitation for a match.”
“I will tell you what,” Mason said boldly. “I will have my fiancee play both grandmasters. I will stake forty thousand pounds (all he had left) that she attains a stalemate with at least one of them.”
They all laughed again. Uproariously. Finally one asked, “Well, then, which of the two grandmasters would your fiancee play first?” He looked around the table seeking mock assurance it was a good question.
Mason shrugged grandly. “She will play both simultaneously.”
Again the laughter roared.
“Simultaneously?” It was a chorus.
“Yes, simultaneously,” Piers repeated for effect.
The majestic group thought the emboldened con man was off his rocker, but the last thing they thought was that he was a con man. After a few more rounds of belly laughter, a wealthy retired British admiral hushed his high-society fellows and stood up at the table facing Mason. He gave the con artist a lookover and then smiled.
“You’re quite a dapper young man,” he said to him, “but I think you’ve lost your marbles. Do you really want to wager forty thousand quid that your girlfr…fiancee can earn a stalemate against either Borzov or Heilmann, two of the greatest grandmasters in the world?”
Mason stood up and met the admiral’s gaze. “Yes, I do.”
The admiral’s eyes scanned the men seated below him at the table. Then to Piers, “Mind if I ask how much money you brought along on this journey?”
“My life savings,” Mason answered proudly.
After a collective exhalation of shock, the admiral asked, “And how much would that be?”
“Fifty thousand dollars.” But Mason did not let it be known that the totality of that sum had been made up of loans and stolen booty.
“And you want to wager forty thousand of it?”
“I’ve already lost the other ten.” Mason indicated the poker table, which drew a guffaw from the men seated around it.
The admiral smiled broadly. “If there’s one thing I admire within His Majesty’s realm it’s one of his subjects with big brass balls. And those, young man, you seem to have. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to arrange simultaneous matches between your fiancee…what’s her name?”
“…Isabel…and both chess masters, and if Isabel achieves a stalemate with either one I will give you one hundred thousand pounds sterling. You don’t need to put up one penny. If she wins one of the matches, I will pay you one million pounds sterling. I won’t bother mentioning the possibility of her winning both matches because I can’t even believe I had the audacity to suggest that her winning one is somehow possible.”
Piers nodded politely. “And if she loses both matches I owe you nothing?”
The admiral looked around the table as if for concurrence. He seemed to get it. He nodded graciously. “Yes, though I would expect you’d buy us all a glass of champagne and cognac.”
So the admiral and his regal mates set out to organize the match. Naturally Borzov and Heilmann, who each had the large ego typical of any chess grandmaster, were loath to lower themselves to a match with “some unknown woman.” But the admiral promised to sweeten their pies should they indulge him. It seemed he was a man who knew no limit when it came to entertaining himself.
At dinner the evening of the match, the atmosphere buzzed with anticipation of the event. Nobody took the match itself seriously, with the exception of Mason, but nearly everyone was just dying of curiosity to see who this mysterious if not talented could be. Mason had already paid off stewards working the cruise to spread the word that she was extremely beautiful, which was only a slight exaggeration.
The tables were set up in the ship’s grand ballroom. A partition separated them. It was agreed that one-minute intervals would be the maximum between moves. The only request Mason had made of the admiral was that spectators be prohibited from viewing both matches. He explained that Isabel’s concentration would be thrown if people were watching and commenting on her play in two different matches. The admiral, after discussing the request briefly with his peers, consented. The grandmasters as well saw no reason for objection, though they expressed their consent with derisive chuckles.
So chairs for the spectators were set up in such a way that allowed them to view only one of the two matches.
When Isabel made her grand entrance wearing a beautifully tailored, exquisite white evening gown, the audience buzzed first with sighs of delightful approval and then in hushed banter about whether or not this striking woman could play chess. At the time, women had not made significant inroads or contributions to the chess world, and according to Borzov and Heilmann never would.
The match with Borzov started first. The Russian played white, so in all fairness Isabel would play white against Heilmann. Borzov opened by advancing a white pawn. Isabel studied the board with a seemingly practiced eye, then suddenly stood up and gracefully skirted the partition to stand across the board from the German. She made her opening move, waited for Heilmann’s countermove and then returned to her match with Borzov.
Isabel did not sit down again. She moved with poise from table to table, never coming close to the one-minute limit on the clock. After ten minutes, it appeared to everyone on both sides of the partition that Isabel was holding her own and would be no pushover for either opponent. The spectators appeared astounded. The only person not looking amazed by the events unfolding was Piers Mason, and he was also the only spectator aboard the Titanic who knew that before this grand evening of chess, his graceful protégée had never seen a chessboard that was not on display in some fancy store’s vitrine.
Thirty minutes into the matches, Heilmann began to show visible signs of distress. Beads of perspiration began seeping out on his forehead. Not being able to put away an unknown chess opponent was bad enough, but not being able to win out over a woman was a sheer blow to his Teutonic pride. He would not be able to face his friends in the beer halls of Munich. How on heaven’s earth was this woman staying in the match with him?
The admiral, although he seemed amused by the idea of shelling out a barrel of cash should this woman reach a stalemate or better with one of her opponents, seemed to be in the grips of stupefaction.
After an hour, the Russian began coming apart as well. He knew he was playing white, which afforded him the advantage against any player in the world, even those who might be slightly better than him. But in spite of that, each and every offensive move he made was countered perfectly by this beautiful woman. How was this possible? How could he show his face to the genteel New Yorkers at the chess tournament? If news got out he couldn’t beat some woman on a boat, no matter how goddamn big the Titanic was, he might as well just walk outside to the deck, peer into the darkness of the ocean and….
Soon Heilmann was beside himself. He’d played against the world’s best. He’d seen every schematic opening, knew the histories and subtleties of each. They were all vulnerable once the slightest miscalculation was made by the player with white. Virtually every opponent he’d played black against made the slight error Heilmann needed to turn his defending black chessmen into an offensive onslaught.
But not against this woman! Not…what was her name again? Her offensive attack was relentless. All he could do was ward off her thrusts and hang on. And that was only to attain the stalemate. He was leaps and bounds away from thinking about winning. Leaps and bounds! This was madness!
Nearing the end, both grandmasters knew they were helplessly deadlocked with their opponent. It was unthinkable but it was happening. However, the Russian playing white still knew he couldn’t lose the match, therefore would never accept a stalemate. The German, on the other hand, was beginning to believe he could never win the match, and if he lost it (unaware that an iceberg would soon end his embarrassment) would actually contemplate suicide.
In the most humbling moment of his life, the grandmaster Heilmann offered his lovely opponent a draw.
None of the three chess players survived the catastrophic accident to live in the aftermath of that unforgettable night of chess. Neither did Piers Mason. He froze to death clinging onto the raft in icy waters. Only the stowaway Mason confided in before dying would live to tell how Piers and Isabel did it. Mason had told the kid only because he wanted him to brag about it so that everyone in England would remember Piers Mason for having pulled off the greatest scam in maritime history.
I think he did.
Like any fantastic hustle, its beauty was in its simplicity. The fact that Isabel didn’t even know how to move the knight had no bearing on the outcome. Mason’s brainstorm was in recognizing that by having the two matches partitioned off from each other, he could effectively pit Borzov against Heilmann, with Isabel’s role in the challenge being nothing more than a mere messenger between the two. And they managed to keep the audience in the dark as to what was going down.
The key to making the scam work was threefold: having Isabel play white against one opponent and black against the other; having whichever opponent playing white make his move before Isabel opened with white against the second opponent; and allowing a sufficient interval between moves. In that fashion, Isabel was able to get up and prance between the two tables for a full minute before having to make a move.
But she hardly needed the full minute. All Isabel did was take each move Borzov made against her and copy it to the adjoining chessboard against Heilmann. Then when Heilmann countered, she simply took his move and copied it to the chessboard between her and Borzov. The result of this chicanery was that Borzov and Heilmann were engaged in a chess match against each other and neither knew it. To further enhance the scam, Mason came up with the idea to disallow the viewing of both matches by anyone, thus no one could spill the beans that Isabel was plagiarizing both players’ moves.
The scam was truly ingenious. In my twenty-five years of developing fundamentally sound cheating moves, I strove to come up with those that were simple because simplicity always works best. It may seem astonishing that two great minds such as Borzov’s and Heilmann’s were unable to reason how Isabel had managed the stalemates, even more so when the odds of that miracle were in the neighborhood of infinity. But since the grandmasters were so obsessed by their chess-playing and their egos, the thought that the matches might have been a scam never occurred to either of them. I’m sure if they’ve read this passage, they’ve rolled over in their graves.